Between 3:12 a.m. and 5:03 a.m. I struggled mentally, trudging through thick snow in silence. We approached the first technical ice wall where I paused, near-vertical on the side of the cliff, and looked down at the clouds circling below. Saturated with the moon’s purple-maroon hues and carrying traces of a lingering thunderstorm, the nebula snaked in and out of the black mountaintop prisms. With little oxygen at 17,700 feet and the thought of thousands of feet remaining above, not only my lungs, but my whole body felt empty. Below me, I perceived nothing but an inferno.
At midnight, hours before, the florescent lights in the refugio shattered the pure calm I’d sealed inside my sleeping bag. I curled tighter into a fetal position, fending off the bitter cold. I hadn’t slept well. This stone-built refugio, known as “high camp,” was smaller than the “low camp” refuge about 3,000 feet down the mountain. The main room, packed with twelve bunk beds and lined with one long, skinny table, housed the assemblage of expedition teams making their last stop before Huayna Potosi’s summit.
At almost 20,000 feet, Huayna Potosi is one of the most accessible, thus popular, technical peaks in Bolivia’s portion of the Andes, the Cordillera Real. During peak season in August and early September, the mountain sees dozens of climbers a day. This particular night, only five of us occupied the refugio’s beds. Still burrowed deep in my sleeping bag, I heard the other four groan in near-unison. I didn’t know them—all four burly Australians, with broad chests and thick facial hair. I’d embarked on this trek by myself, which had started two days before from the lower camp. At the time, I was four months deep in a seven-month solo-backpacking trip.
Weeks prior I’d met two French men on a bus to La Paz, Bolivia’s cultural capital. They were returning for another try at Huayna Potosi, which looms like a watchdog over the city. “Altitude sickness man, it’ll get you.” They’d only made it to the first base camp before one got so sick they’d had to turn back down. “But the mountain man, she’s a beauty. There’s nothing that beats a killer mountain.”
I wasn’t sure exactly what he’d meant by killer—which definition his French had translated to heavily accented English: destroyer or amazing?
I emerged from my sleeping bag cocoon and immediately slid into my second puffy jacket. It must’ve been well below zero. I shivered head to toe, and pulled on a hat to cover my ears and a messy braid that I hadn’t bothered to redo since leaving La Paz. That day I was the only girl on the mountain. I tip-toed into the adjacent gear room where Rocky, my guide, was sitting. With dark features and a strong stature, he was only 23, three years older than me, but about five inches shorter. He sat on one of the benches, lacing up his boots. “Buenos dias chica, ¿lista para las aventuuuuras?”
I sat down to pull my own boots on. Putting my head down between my knees I could feel my pulse, thick in my temples, rapid and fierce. Nervous or the altitude? In addition to icing my lungs, the air was noticeably thinner, so I found myself taking shallower, more frequent breaths. From a medical Wilderness First Responder course, I remember that a major cause of mountaineering-related deaths is high altitude pulmonary edema, where fluid gathers in the lungs, restricting breathing and oxygen absorption into the blood stream. A cough and dizziness can manifest in even the most experienced hikers, but severe conditions can lead to a deadly combination of symptoms.
“Lista,” I said, intentionally taking one full deep breath. Today was our big day, the final push to the summit.
When we breathe in, oxygen molecules pass through our lungs into air sacs, or small pods where purple oxygen-deficient blood cells come to refuel. Once revitalized, the cells metamorphose red and return to the bloodstream highways, delivering the essential fuel for bodily function. Being at high altitudes, the air pressure, and thus oxygen supply, is significantly lower than normal. This drastically increases the risk that blood vessels begin leaking—either resulting from the unfamiliar pressure levels or changes in their permeability, no one really knows. What scientists do know is that climbing too high too fast primes the perilous conditions for pulmonary edema, or excess fluid in the lungs. Such a state can be deadly, and can only be corrected only by returning to low elevations and increasing the oxygen supply.
I shouldered my pack, thankfully light compared to the previous days’, now only filled with our tools and a couple snacks. The four burly Australians and their guide entered the room, hee-hawing about racing to the summit. “You ready sister?” they asked me, maintaining their joking intonation. I smiled at them and then at Rocky, who winked at me, inspiring my confidence. I said, “See you at the summit.”
To prevent and combat high altitude pulmonary edema, mountaineers typically spend days or even weeks acclimatizing incrementally to high altitude climates. Around 17,000 feet is when the exposure to alpine environments becomes more severe; sleep loss, muscle wasting, and weight loss are significantly exacerbated, more often than not resulting in signs of full-body deterioration.
The month before this trek, I’d done some high-altitude hiking in Peru, reaching over 15,000 feet. Feeling strong then, I figured something higher and more technical was the natural next step.
I’d spent a week adjusting to the Bolivian mountain altitude, which, in La Paz, already sits around 11,500 feet. While I’d been running six miles without a problem down at the beach in Peru, I could barely make it three miles without wheezing and feeling dizzy. That people live there, and in even higher communities throughout the surrounding mountains, amazed me. I found out that their genes are structurally different from those living at sea level. After centuries of permanently occupying high altitude territory, both the Andean and Himalayan folk, have developed key physiological differences, such as low hemoglobin concentrations, that tame altitude sickness. While each day got a little bit easier for me, I could tell it would take a long time before I’d be cruising my normal six miles.
I got a job bartending at the Adventure Brew Hostel, famous in the Western backpacking circuit for their daily batch of free and endless (read: not tremendously tasty) pancake breakfasts. During the day I’d wander through the city, and by night I’d post up behind the bar to serve drinks to the foreigners, listen to any stories they were willing to share and eavesdrop on the rest. Many were there to party, but more than I’d expected were there for Huayna Potosi. Some would regale with wild stories of success; others would embellish failures with hilarity or severity. My curiosity was beyond piqued. “It’s easy compared to other technical mountains,” I’d overheard a bearded Australian guy with tattoos lining his arms say, but he’d been flirting with a girl all night, so I couldn’t gather how seriously I’d take his comment.
I promptly signed up through an expedition company recommended by the hostel. For just about $100 they provided my guide, transportation, food and outfitted me with supplementary equipment: cramp-ons, mountaineering boots, an ice pick, insulated pants, a helmet, and an old smelly fleece I could use if needed.
At 12:45 a.m. outside the refugio, I fastened a figure eight knot into my harness, tethering myself to Rocky. The Australians emerged and we all paused to fasten our crampons. I leaned back against my pack and gazed above me, watching my breath swirl fuzzy, weightless molecules across my headlamp’s stream. Our position thousands of feet above any other light sources opened a window into the universe. No cloud was in sight, just a huge sprawl of glittery stars, the cleanest expanse of the Milky Way I’d ever seen.
Two hundred meters up the slope we could see another cluster of headlamps outside another, newer refugio. “How many people are going up today?” I asked Rocky.
“I think there’ll be 12 of us,” he said.
The Australian group stepped up ahead of us, assuming they would begin first. I rolled my eyes, annoyed, before putting it behind me. We all fell into single file zig-zagging up the slope. Starting out behind everyone was slow, but after an hour, a group of three turned back. As soon as they were out of earshot, Rocky turned to me. “We’re making it to the summit, right?” It wasn’t so much a question as a statement. I could only nod.
The other groups bobbed ahead like little LED ants. We hiked endlessly under the stars’ glow, traversing staggering cliffs and avoiding deep crevices. The moon climbed along the sky in tandem, racing us to the summit. As we entered the world above the clouds, a thunderstorm brewed across the valley underneath us, allowing witness to the birth of lightening from above: sparkly golden electricity gathering, deep purples and grays and golds coalescing before striking down on earth—the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.
At 2:38 a.m., nausea blended in my stomach and I fought to keep down. The novelty of the adventure wore off, and the reality of the bitter cold, biting wind, and thousands of anticipated steps sank in. Ice clawed at my gloved fingers. Another group turned back; only six of us remained. I had all the corporeal sensations of sprinting—fast heartbeat, shortness of breath, chest tightness—but felt like I was moving through molasses, laboriously in slow-motion. Would we ever get there?
Rocky paced the hike well, but from his strong and meaningful gait, compared to my haphazard trudge, I could tell that if he’d untethered me, he’d be at the peak in a flash. Every time he glanced back at me, he flashed a smile, you’re doing it Chiquita! Later, Rocky told me that he during the peak season, he summits the mountain three to four times a week, often staying up at the low camp in between clients. Nothing tires him anymore.
At a flat pass we caught up to a group taking a water break. One of the guides looked at me. “¿Chica Americana?”
I nodded as my unforgiving breath slowly returned during the pause. “Si, soy yo.”
He laughed. “¡Bueno!” And held his palm up: high-five. Rocky and I continued before them, overtaking the other group ahead within a half hour. Now I reckoned only one, maybe two parties were ahead of us.
At 6:02 a.m., the sight of the summit rounded into our vision. A small burst of much-needed energy jolted into my system at the thought of being almost there. Another climber was at the base of the short vertical ice wall that led to the final traverse to the peak. “¿La chica joven?” he asked Rocky, his face completely covered by a blue balaclava.
The little girl? How did everyone know about me?
The peak was right behind him. All I wanted to do was finish and stand on it, that pinnacle of physical exhaustion and beauty. The sun was creeping up and my energy further waning. An emptiness crept inside me as I paused to breathe between each step, though my heart kept racing, pulsing throughout my whole body. I tapped into my annoyance at being called a little girl and urged Rocky to begin again. I just wanted it to be done.
Along the exposed traverse, sheer drop offs on either side, I kept my gaze down and tip-toed behind Rocky. The wind came, whipping my hood back and I turned around to see the sun birthing the horizon, illuminating the grand expanse below. Five more steps to the summit. Ice crunched. Breath hard, dry, cold. The wind bit at every part of me.
And then Rocky stopped. I almost ran into him. He stepped aside. Two more steps. All of a sudden the breathlessness at almost 20,000 feet, the thousands of steps, the head-down trudging, the equal exhaustion and exhilaration, the everything it took to get up there became insanely, instantly worth it.
At 6:32 a.m. the sun, diffused by the lingering morning misty clouds, wound its rays in between the lower peaks. I occupied the highest point within our periphery. While the sun beckoned a new day for the rest of the world thousands of feet below, I whooped and hollered directly at its fiery giant orb, celebrating how much of the day I’d already lived.
I felt so alive, invincible and mortal all at once. Does Rocky feel this way each time he summits?